I know what you’re thinking; you think I put “bites breast” in the subject heading just to grab your attention. Nah, would I do that?
In fact, a dog inside of a car poked its snout through an open window and did bite the breast of a passing woman. And I presume it hurt quite a bit because there is money up on the table and an interesting judicial decision to go with it.
The issue came to a head this week in Allstate v. Reyes, in Dutchess County. The car, with the dog inside and the window partly open, was parked in a “No Parking” zone when the woman was bitten. The owner of the car, through his insurance company, ponied up the $25,000 policy that he had.
But the injuries — not listed in the decision — were obviously pretty substantial as the bitten woman then filed for arbitration against her own insurance company under it under-insured motorist claim provision. This is an endorsement on your policy that comes into play if the car that smashed into you (which is what usually happens) was carrying insufficient insurance for your injuries.
But this wasn’t a car accident, it was a dog bite. Did this injury occur arise out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the under-insured vehicle?
Want to take a guess? I’ll wait…
And the answer is, according to Dutchess County Justice James Pagones, yes. It did arise out of the use of the vehicle. Why? Because:
…the use of a vehicle to transport a household pet is now commonplace and the dog would not have been close enough to bite the respondent’s right breast without the use of [the owner's] vehicle to haul the dog and [the owner's] act of permitting the rear window to remain open. It is not necessary that the use of the vehicle be the proximate cause of the respondent’s injuries. Rather, this court finds that the use of the vehicle was a proximate cause of the respondent’s injuries. [emphasis in original]
Justice Pagones made a point of italicizing that the conduct did not have to be the proximate cause, it only needs to be a proximate cause. And that is because an injury might result from multiple caues.
One interesting twist on this case is this: If this was just a dog bite case, the concept of negligence wouldn’t exist. In New York, we have strict liability for animals with a known dangerous propensity. This is part of the infamous concept of “one free bite” — a concept that isn’t 100% accurate — that gives an owner notice of danger. So if there was no additional insurance through the under-insured endorsement, it would be impossible to obtain a judgment against the dog/car owner for simply the dog bite unless you could prove the dog had a nasty history.
Will you ever see this fact pattern again? Hell no. But I appreciate good judicial reasoning in an off-beat case.